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BMW i8

 

The BMW i8 brings green technology together with sports-car styling and performance. Is it an uneasy alliance or a pointer to the future?

Base price: $278,000.

Powertrain and performance: 1.5-litre turbo petrol three-cylinder with 170kW/320Nm driving the rear wheels, electric motor with 96kW driving the front wheels, 6-speed automatic rear, two-speed automatic front, four-wheel drive, Combined economy 2.1 litres per 100km (electric-only range claimed mean customer value 25-35km), 0-100km/h 4.4 seconds.

Vital statistics: 4689mm long, 1298mm high, wheelbase 2800mm, 20-inch alloy wheels on 195/50 (front) and 215/45 (rear) tyres.

We like: BMW’s bravery in making this car, sensational styling, swift acceleration, advanced powertrain technology.

We don’t like: High-tech comes at a high price, handling more accomplished than entertaining.

How it rates: 9/10

WHAT DO I NEED TO KNOW? If first impressions are anything to go by, the future has arrived.

The BMW i8 must surely be one of the most eagerly awaited cars of 2014, thanks mainly to its other-worldly styling but also to the advanced technology that lies underneath: a plug-in hybrid powertrain and carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) construction that makes it light but also very strong.

The i8 sports car is one half of the range that makes up BMW’s new i-brand. Its stablemate is the i3 city car, which shares the i8’s CFRP structure but is taller, roomier, slower – and a pure electric car with an on-board petrol generator. But that’s a story for another day.

WHAT’S IT LIKE TO DRIVE? The i8 is a genuine attempt at a plug-in sports car and in many respects it succeeds. It looks incredible and it’s actually very fast: with 0-100km/h in 4.4 seconds it can give an M4 a good run for its money.

The electric motor drives the front wheels, while the 1.5-litre three-cylinder petrol unit (as found in the Mini Cooper and BMW 218i Active Tourer) drives the rear.

You might well ask how BMW extracts so much performance from such modest means. The petrol engine has been pumped up to 170kW/320Nm (a Mini makes 100kW/220Nm) and thanks to that CFRP architecture, the i8 weighs in at just 1490kg despite carrying 96 Samsung lithium-ion battery cells.

The i8 can go from silent to sounding quite violent in sport mode, thanks to a sound generator that pipes an exhaust note akin to a V8 racing car through the cabin under hard acceleration. No, it’s not real: but so much about this car seems surreal that it doesn’t matter.

There’s nothing complicated about driving the i8. If you want to prioritise battery power then you press a button labelled “eDrive”. Otherwise, you just let the car do its thing, either in normal or sport modes.

The i8 deserves to be called a sports car (although not a supercar as some have suggested, despite the low-slung shape), but it still doesn’t offer the engaging handling of an M4 or M6. It’s more in the rapid but ruthlessly efficient category – it would almost certainly stay with an M4 on a winding road or track, but it rockets from A-to-B on rails rather than dancing around corners like an M-car. Perhaps that’s how it should be.

Green credentials are key to the i-brand. On a full charge the i8 can travel up to 35km, which should be enough for an average daily commute. It will do up to 120km/h on battery power. Even in hybrid mode it’s something of a fuel sipper, thanks to that tiny three-cylinder engine.

IS IT EASY TO LIVE WITH? Odd this, but whereas the i3 has an incredibly avant garde interior that’s unlike anything else in the BMW range, the i8’s cabin architecture is largely conventional. The instrument binnacle and tablet-like iDrive screen will be familiar to owners of the brand’s mainstream vehicles, save flashes of the signature i-brand bright blue colour and the fact that the main display is virtual – there’s not a dial in sight. This allows the configuration and colour to change according to which mode you’re in. It’s also future-proofing in some respects, as BMW can simply plug in and change the layout when required when upgrades are required.

The strength of the CFRP passenger cell has allowed BMW to give the i8 dihedral doors, which swing up and forward to offer a huge aperture. Not that getting into the thing is a particularly dignified experience: it has high sills like any other low-slung sports car, so you kind of just slide across and drop into your seat. The bad news is that everybody on the street will probably be watching you.

It may not look it, but the i8 is actually a two-plus-two. The rear seats are child-sized only, but still more than you might hope for in such a low-slung vehicle.

SHOULD I BUY ONE? The i8 is a bold step forward and has no direct rivals. It’s an early adopters’ delight and certainly dramatic-looking and feeling enough to attract buyers who don’t necessarily have environmental concern at the top of their wish list.

But the true enthusiast might look at the $278,000 pricetag and see an M6 as an alternative. Or even the brilliant new M4, which could be yours and still leave enough change to buy an i3 to run around town in. Must be wonderful to have such difficult choices to make.

EQUIPMENT CHECKLIST

  • Air conditioning: Dual climate
  • Audio: CD, iPod compatible
  • Automatic lights/wipers: Yes/yes
  • Blind spot warning: No
  • Bluetooth: Yes
  • Cruise control: Yes
  • Driver footrest: Yes
  • Head-up display: Yes
  • Heated/ventilated seats: Yes/No
  • Keyless entry/start: Yes/Yes
  • Lane guidance: Yes
  • Leather upholstery: Yes
  • Parking radar: Yes with 360-degree camera
  • Power boot or tailgate: No
  • Power seat adjustment/memory: Yes
  • Rear ventilation outlets: No
  • Remote audio controls: Yes
  • Satellite navigation: Yes
  • Seat height adjustment: Yes
  • Self-parking technology: No
  • Steering reach adjustment: Yes
  • Stop-start: No
  • Trip computer: Yes

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